During our road trip through southern and western Iceland, endless possibilities to sample unusual foods like local fish and puffin meat crossed our path, but oftentimes we had to discreetly back off as the sad truth is only one: eating in Iceland is horribly expensive. I know that that is part of the tourism system and I, as a visitor, should try to help the local economy as much as I can, but food – especially in restaurants – proved just so incredibly overpriced that I just couldn’t.I am the kind of thifty soul who tends to prefer a more convenient home-made meal over a more fun restaurant experience, but when I travel I like to splurge and try the local cuisine. The problem is that when the local cuisine ends up costing as much as your flight ticket (and I did not fly Ryanair this time), the money-saver in me takes over my epicurean self.
A couple of weeks before leaving I had asked an Iceland-born acquaintance if it was really worth trying the hákarl, the famous
rotten fermented shark proudly made and enjoyed only in Iceland. She said it was not worth it. It’s just disgusting, it’s mostly for old people very attached to traditions and for tourists who want to try the experience, according to her. She recommended I’d try the Icelandic lamb meat soup, or puffin meat, instead. So when I had my first encounter with hákarl in the supermarket I chose to listen to this local’s advice and steered clear.
For the first part of my trip I clung to the thought of lamb and puffin as per her recommendation. Moreover, I had also read on an Iceland expat blog, Life with a view, about creamy lobster soup and I also had a taste for something similar. Then we got to Reykjavík, checked out the prices of the restaurants, remembered our budget for the whole trip already sinking low and settled for one meal out. The choice was based on the budget and it ended up being fish and chips. Delicious fish and chips, served with cilantro mayo. The fish was incredibly soft, outstandingly contrasting with the crispy light batter that wrapped it. Memorable. Delicious. First and last time eating out.
So how about the other meals, then? We had brought in our suitcases some instant ramen noodles and a couple of packages of pasta (insert joke on Italian stereotypes here). Plus a couple of tubes of concentrated tomato paste and a tiny bottle of olive oil I carry with me in my travel makeup bag with the other liquids (insert more jokes on the stereotypical Italian at travel here). Guess what, this actually saved our lives the first night. We landed in Iceland on the afternoon of Good Friday and stopped at the first supermarket only to find it closed and learn that all stores in Iceland are closed on Good Friday, no way to buy any food anywhere. Still joking about my pasta with tomato sauce now?
So what we fed on during basically all of our trip were foods we would regularly buy at local supermarkets. Staying in cottages or guesthouses we always had access to a kitchen, so for lunch we would pack our sandwiches and for dinner we would make our pasta. This helped us save a huge lot of money on food, and provided me with the exciting opportunity to visit local supermarkets. This is something I love to do, as I wrote in a previous post about visiting a grocery store in Budapest. At supermarkets I feel like I’m truly immersing myself into the local life and I get really excited when I discover new foods as well as when I come across familiar ones. You can imagine the state of wild glee I was in when in the most remote supermarket in Iceland I found a whole section dedicated solely to Polish food. A little piece of Poland in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!
So on the very last day of the trip, coming back from the Snæfellsnes peninsula, we stumbled upon a local tourist attraction, the shark museum at Bjarnarhöfn. Intrigued, we stopped to visit. The museum is located on a farm that is one of the very few places that produce and commercially distribute hákarl. Yes, the terrible fermented shark I had tried to avoid throughout the whole week. At the museum we got to learn a lot of interesting facts about this traditional food and its production, as well as about the Greenland shark, which is the species used for this food. Catching the sharks for making hákarl is not ecologically nor economically sustainable nowadays, so all the sharks that end up in this place are accidental catches. So making hákarl is actually a way to honour an old tradition and at the same time dispose in a more sustainable way of unwanted fish. Included in the price of the ticket, there was the possibility to sample this infamous food. My Icelandic friend will be disappointed, but alas I complied and had my bit of shark.
Guess what? It was not that bad! I have to admit I only had it with bread, and the challenge was to have the first piece with bread, and a second piece without. I didn’t dare to have it alone, but from what I tasted with my first sample I can say that… well, it was not that bad! Sure, it’s not something I’d happily snack on anytime, and the smell is really awful. But it’s not disgusting. It has a very strong taste that can be compared to very old and mouldy cheese. Think very stale gorgonzola, if you haven’t had anything more extreme. I come from that part of Italy that borders with France and up on the Alps we can produce some really strong cheese. Stuff aged several years, stuff with actual maggots living on the crust. Real weird. I personally don’t enjoy these kinds of cheese, but hákarl was nothing worse. There, I said it.
Shark meat needs to go through a fermentation process that can last a few weeks, then it is placed to hang in outdoor shelters for a few months. During the first stage, it is the fermentation process what actually rids the meat of the poisonous substances that make fresh shark meat deadly. After this process, the curing stage begins. We went to the shack where the shark pieces were hanging to examine them when they’re not cut up in small cubes, which is the traditional way of serving it. The stench around the cabin was quite unbearable and it contrasted so sharply with the beautiful scenery all around. It reminded me of the multitude of cod hanging everywhere and giving some parts of the Lofoten islands their characteristic (yet horrible) smell.
While we were visiting a load of a few sharks was delivered to the farm and one was put out to display in front of the main entrance. Beheading and gutting the shark is the first step in the preparation of hákarl. Apparently the big fish we were lucky to see was not even a very large one. I was still pretty impressed with its size. The Greenland shark is mostly a scavenger and it’s quite unlikely that it would attack a human (it’s quite unlikely an encounter with a human at all, considering the temperature of the waters it inhabits), but I’d still be pretty terrified to meet a live one in real life.
Apart from educating visitors about hákarl, the museum displays Greenland shark jaws and stuffed (taxidermy) animals including seals, arctic foxes and several local birds, among which the puffin. It was very interesting overall, I personally enjoy observing wild animals even in their taxidermy version. The owner of the museum is a very friendly man. After allowing us to take silly photos holding his stuffed seals I asked him to pose with me and he did. I was feeling so welcome in his little museum I guess the expression on my face reveals my mood there and then. Ladies and gentlemen, this was my hákarl face.
We visited the museum out of random curiosity. We had learned about it the night before, this is not something we had planned. My boyfriend has a random fascination for Greenland sharks ever since he read studies published last year about the insane longevity of these animals. Plus, the idea of trying a sample of the infamous food right where it is produced sounded convincing enough. I had to comply, as a food blogger.